Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Creating potential for connection is one of the most essential aspects of the writer’s job. Whether you’re writing a hero, a villain, or a character somewhere in between, there should be at least one element that allows the reader to connect with that character.
Sometimes, this comes easily. Your characters are likeable, and you don’t have to work at putting a deeply human persona on the page. Other times, you may find yourself at a loss to point to something – anything – that makes them relatable. There are two elements that are so universal to the human experience that you can include them in any character in order to help your reader connect with them.
So, what are these two magical elements? You probably guessed by the title. But in case they slipped by you, we’re talking about shame and vulnerability.
What’s the problem?
First off, why do main characters need to be relatable anyway? Because they carry the weight of the story, they drive the plot and character arcs, and they’re usually most involved in developing the themes of the book. If there’s literally nothing endearing about these characters, it’s incredibly hard for readers to stay invested in the story.
I’m not saying your reader won’t make it to the last page or that they’ll leave a bad review of the book. It’s possible they’ll even enjoy the book, but they’ll struggle to relate to your characters. That’s a central piece of the reading experience you’re cutting out, and you can avoid doing so by simply focusing on the ways that shame and vulnerability come into play for your character as part of their human experience.
How do shame and vulnerability solve it?
These two elements are the little cracks in the façade that let the reader in. A character without any soft places can repel readers and come across as being unrealistic. But if they’ll let us inside, let us see their humanity, even the darkest character is one we can connect to, feel something for, and maybe even grow to love – or at least understand.Shame and vulnerability give the reader a window into difficult characters.Click To Tweet
I want to introduce you to Elizabeth Hand’s antihero, Cass Neary, first seen in Generation Loss. Hand’s portrayal of this jaded has-been is so skillful that you can’t look away, though Cass plunges headlong into the dark side every chance she gets.
Cass Neary made a name for herself as a young photographer in the seventies. She didn’t shy away from the seedy underbelly of New York’s punk scene; in fact, it’s where she felt most alive. Her one-hit wonder was a book of photographs called Dead Girls exposing the darker side of sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll… and death.
I can smell damage; it radiates from some people like a pheromone. Those are the ones I photograph. I can tell where they’ve been, what’s destroyed them, even after they’re dead… It shows up in pictures, if you know how to catch the light.
– Cass Neary, Generation Loss
Cass’ story often feels like a long chain of self-sabotage. She can’t hold down a job or a relationship for very long; she relies on drugs and alcohol to get through the day; she’s burned all her bridges. In the same way she turns her camera on the dark, seedy, and sinister, Cass turns an unflinching eye on her own brokenness: she’s chronically hurting herself and everyone in her path. She admits at one point, “Some people make their own bad luck. Others, I help them out.”
The one person it seems she lets inside, though, is the reader. She doesn’t keep us at arm’s length, and that’s what makes this story work. Cass doesn’t psychoanalyze or obsess about her habits. She just tells us what happened and lets us put the pieces together. In a moment of particular vulnerability, she confides about an attack that still haunts her:
It’s like having a razor blade clamped between your teeth: you move your mouth too much, your tongue, you smile or talk or kiss someone, you cut yourself open. You could drown if you swallowed that much blood. You could fucking bleed to death.
As we follow Cass, she doesn’t bother to hide the way she self-medicates every few hours with a beer, a pack of cigarettes, a bottle of Jack Daniels, or a stolen handful of Percocet. She talks a lot about photography and about Aphrodite’s brilliant work. She sometimes admits to wishing she had her camera on hand, but you start to wonder why she doesn’t do something about it. If she loves the work so much, why not pick it up again? But just when you chalk it up to self-pity, Cass lets down her guard. Taking photographs of Aphrodite’s most famous prints, she explains:
The sound of the shutter release was like a moth beating against glass. I took a dozen pictures then slid down to the floor. I began to cry.
Those photos… They were so fucking amazing… No matter what I did, I would never be able to produce something that good. I would never make something great. Even at my best, for fifteen seconds thirty years ago, I wasn’t capable of it.
And just like that, we get a peek behind that hard exterior, to the source of what’s eating at Cass Neary. Does your heart soften toward her? Mine did.Vulnerability can be the key to making a character sympathetic without making them likable.Click To Tweet
How to make shame and vulnerability work for you
In Cass Neary, the reader sees a broken soul resigned to her fate, unapologetic about perpetuating her own downward spiral. But they stick with her because she lets them in; she doesn’t push them away with pride or falsehood or bravado. By putting Cass’ shame and vulnerability on the page, Elizabeth Hand manages to make this jagged woman a sympathetic character.
Here are three takeaways from Generation Loss you can try with even your most unlikable characters:
- Fear, failure, or regret. When we talk about vulnerability, we mean those chinks in the armor. Let readers see those moments of fear, failure, or regret that plague your character – even if he or she hides it from the rest of the world. Those are three powerful emotions that resonate with every reader.
- Exposure. Shame takes these emotions one step further by exposing them to others. When your character’s deeds are brought to light in big and small ways, they might seem unfazed on the surface, but let readers see and feel the shame brewing beneath. This creates a potential for compassion or sympathy – even empathy.
- Betrayal, attack, abuse. Even the toughest person isn’t immune to betrayal, attack, or abuse. In fact, trauma can be a major source of a character’s negative behaviors and harsh characteristics. Readers can relate to suffering and its corrosive effects.
Keeping it real
Harsh characters tell some of the most memorable stories. So, go for it. Don’t hold back; don’t be afraid to write dark characters. Just be sure to give them a few cracks to let the reader in. Let shame and vulnerability be your guide. Wherever there’s fear, failure, regret, exposure, disappointment, betrayal, or trauma, let your reader see and feel what your character sees and feels. Don’t hold them at arm’s length, and your honesty will be rewarded with their loyalty.Vulnerability is a universal feeling that your reader will respond to.Click To Tweet
How have you used shame and vulnerability to endear even your toughest characters to your readers? What tips would you share with a fellow writer struggling to write a sympathetic character? Let me know in the comments, and check out How To Make An Unlikable Protagonist Work For Your Story and How To Handle Grief In Your Novel.